OXFORD, Miss. — Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze is thrilled that God deemed the wood plenty drenched.
The Rebels — injury-depleted Rebels — finally won the close game they’ve been chasing under second-year coach Hugh Freeze, a 27-24 win Saturday against No. 6 LSU.
“You can imagine how proud I am and thankful that God chose to bless us,” Freeze said. “I told our team this morning that sometimes God wets the wood before he lights it, a little story in 1 Kings. I feel like we’ve gone through our share of being drenched a little.”
Andrew Ritter’s 41-yard field goal split the uprights and left only 2 seconds for the Tigers.
Is Ole Miss learning to win these games? Are the Rebels ready to become a contender in the nation’s toughest conference?
“We didn’t make plays the other night to win it at the end. Tonight we did,” Freeze said.
After giving in to Johnny Manziel on the final play of a three-point loss a week earlier, the Rebels (4-3, 2-3) forgot all about that — and the criticism that came with it — and did its part to keep SEC upset-Saturday alive. If the Rebels are learning to win these games and making the progress some expect with their newfound talent pool, maybe the SEC West has a new player.
The East had a wild Saturday. In the West, Alabama is happy for the Rebels. The Tide beat Ole Miss 25-0 in Tuscaloosa and got help from them Saturday. Ole Miss’ win almost certainly puts the Tide back in Atlanta. LSU (6-2, 3-2) will almost certainly go to Tuscaloosa with two conference losses against a still-unbeaten Tide. Ole Miss is aiming to be in that conversation.
“This conference, I’ve said all along to the people that would listen to me, that you have to be guarded in your expectations in year two with some of the issues we still have,” Freeze said. “But we’re going to compete. We’re going to have a chance to win.”
A short-handed Ole Miss defense — among the missing were starting defensive ends Robert Nkemdiche and done-for-the-year C.J. Johnson — picked Zach Mettenberger three times, twice in the end zone. A third came at the Ole Miss 11. That came with newcomers on the islands, including a freshman — and wide receiver-convert Derrick Jones. Four more players left Saturday’s game. Yet Ole Miss tied a season-high with three sacks.
On offense, back Jeff Scott was out, but sophomore Jaylen Walton rushed for a career-high 105 yards and two touchdowns.
It was Ole Miss’ first win over a Top 10 team since a win over No. 8 LSU in 2009. It was also the highest ranked team Ole Miss has beaten since a win at Florida in 2008.
“There was no chance in the team being underestimated,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “They knew that they were going to have to come in here and play, they always have.”
The Rebels piled up 525 yards to the Tigers’ 388. Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace threw for 346 of them.
The win doesn’t visibly improve Ole Miss’ stock in the West, but it does mentally improve a team that needed to know this was possible.
“I was really emotional. I almost lost it. I almost cried,” said Wallace. “Just felt everything just lift off of us.”
It was never as bad as some made it out. Ole Miss’ three straight losses came to Top 25 teams. But a fourth straight loss would have put it in that direction.
Fans love to dream of beating those teams if the Rebels keep stockpiling talent — a Top 5 recruiting class in 2013 — but a realistic look is a happy fanbase with consistent bowl appearances and a competitive team in a Top 10-heavy SEC West.
That’s now four wins, with seemingly plenty of winnable games remaining to name their own bowl destination. And it proves to the rest of the league that these Rebels are learning what it takes. Ole Miss overcame adversity, including a muffed punt that led to a field goal and cut its once-17-0 lead to 24-17 early in the fourth.
The Rebels don’t know how to stab the dagger yet. Before Ritter was the hero, he saw a low line drive effort blocked by Ego Ferguson. That would have given Ole Miss a 10-point lead with 8:03 left.
But progress is visible. The up-tempo Rebels have to win third down to go as fast as they want. They did, converting 11-of-18. That resulted in Freeze — a fourth down gambler — to settle for no fourth-down attempts. Six of those conversions were at least third-and-9 and the Rebels picked up 115 yards on the conversions.
For the second straight weekend, Ole Miss hosted a bevy of highly-ranked recruits.
“My immediate thought always goes to recruiting,” Freeze said. “There’s some really good recruits in that locker room that see we”re really close and we could use a little help, because we’re not where we need to be depth-wise in certain spots. No question I think it helps us in recruiting, which will help us ultimately get where we all want to go.”